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Groundwork: A Stampede of Cowpeas

Late summer in the veggie garden at Green Spring Gardens looks a bit like a New Orleans party that's gone on too long: Everyone's having a good time and not really caring what they look like. The Swiss chard is impossibly big and a bit flaccid, the Sungold tomatoes are sprawled and fruitful, and the cowpeas are clambering over each other.

Recipe Included

Carrots sown about a month ago are doing well, and Cindy Brown invited me to taste the tiny purple flower clusters of the malabar spinach. They call to mind the flavor of beets, and Cindy likes to use them to perk up salads.

The vegetable of the week is the sun-loving, late-season crop we call cowpea, or black-eye pea or crowther pea. Name it what you will, it is one of the Southern legumes that needs a lot of heat and a long season to flower and fruit. If you live in New York, fuggedaboutit. It is like the asparagus or yardlong bean or the lima bean; you need to live below the Mason Dixon Line for a reliable crop in September into October.

Cindy and the gang sowed them in July, after harvesting a cool season crop in the same beds. By then the soil was warm enough for quick germination. In one bed, her crew is growing Pink Eye Purple Hull, whose pods formed about a month ago, green. The maturing pods have turned a dark purple, and the peas within them are soft and nutty. Younger peas (yes, we had a field tasting) are greener and a little tougher but with all the fresh flavor of a garden pea in June.

In the adjoining bed, Cindy has sown a green-leafed and green-podded variety named Mississippi Silver. As you can see it is still in flower, a lovely lemon yellow pea blossom.

Lemon yellow flower of the cowpea Mississippi Silver. (Adrian Higgins -- Washington Post)

This should produce edible cowpeas before the onset of frost season at the end of October or early November. Cowpeas make a fabulous late-season crop, and as a legume feed the soil with nitrogen. But the one drawback is that the long thin pods take forever to shell. (Cindy watched an entire college football game while shelling enough for the recipe below.) Still, the cowpea is a veritable touchdown in the contact sport we know as gardening. I see that Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has a good selection of cowpeas to order this winter for next season. Gardening is a year-round enterprise of rhythms and cycles. No wonder they call it slow food.

-- Adrian Higgins

Black-Eyed Pea and Pineapple Salad, served here with fried catfish. (Cynthia A. Brown)

Cindy: About fresh black-eyed peas vs. canned black-eyed peas: When comparing the two, fresh wins every culinary category except convenience. Flavor, texture, eye-appeal. . . it is like comparing fresh green peas with canned green peas. However, shelling enough black-eyed peas to use in a recipe can take forever. Lucky for black-eyed pea aficionados, Man created football games. Sitting and watching grown men chase each other around a turf field is almost an enjoyable, acceptable pasttime when combined with the rhythmic chore of shelling peas. It also has the added benefit of having something at hand to throw at the television when you don’t agree with the referee.

If dual-tasking doesn’t fit your schedule, many farmers market vendors sell pre-shelled black-eyed peas. In a real pinch, frozen is better than nothing. Just don’t reach for a can unless it is the only thing available.

I served the salad with fried catfish for dinner and then again for lunch with homemade tortilla chips. Also consider pairing the salad with Monterey Jack cheese as a filling for quesadillas.

Black-Eyed Pea and Pineapple Salad
6 side-dish servings

MAKE AHEAD: The salad tastes best when allowed to rest in the refrigerator, covered for a few hours and up to overnight. It can be refrigerated for up to 3 days.

Adapted from a recipe in the April 1992 issue of Bon Appetit magazine.

3 cups fresh black-eyed peas (if buying in pods, this is about 2 pounds of pods)
Leaves from 1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped (1/2 to 3/4 cup)
5 or 6 scallions, white and light-green parts, cut crosswise into small slices (1/2 cup)
2 or 3 jalapeño peppers, stemmed and seeded, then cut crosswise into thin slices
1 medium red and 1 medium green sweet pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped (1 1/2 to 2 cups)
Juice of 1 lime (about 2 tablespoons)
1 1/2 cups fresh pineapple, finely chopped (if purchasing a whole pineapple you will have leftovers to enjoy in another recipe)
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Put the black-eyed peas in a medium saucepan and just barely cover with water. Cover with a lid and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook about 10 minutes, until tender. Drain the peas and place in a large mixing bowl.

Add the cilantro, scallions, peppers, lime juice, pineapple, vinegar, oil and salt to taste; mix well. Serve right away, or, better yet, cover and refrigerate for a few hours up to overnight, to develop the flavors. Taste and adjust salt and needed before serving.

Per serving: 310 calories, 13 g protein, 40 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 573 mg sodium, 18 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  September 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, recipes  
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